The river below the river

Years ago I was privileged to be part of a monthly journal writing retreat group in Maryland under the guidance of poet and writer Kathleen Depro. She handwrote, bound, and individually illustrated the covers of small booklets of her own writings and poems of others, which I have kept and treasured.

We lost touch long ago—I recently learned that she died several years back at the age of 57. I want to honor the memory of her beautiful writing by excerpting here from a December booklet she made. It speaks of this time of year when we are surrounded by so much water:

We are in the nighttime of the year, the deep yin season of dark and wet and cold and stillness, a time of complete receptivity. This is a time to take in, absorb, reflect, hold, and contain.

In Chinese medicine, winter’s element is water, the water of life. We begin in the water; there is water in every cell of our bodies. We return to the water again and again, for renewal, for refreshment, for healing. We drink the water. We bathe in water. We swim in water. We float on the water; we rock on the waters.

We live through the winter on the flow of this water, this “rio abajo rio,” the river below the river, as described by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in her book Women Who Run With the Wolves. It is the river that carries us. It is the flow of life itself moving through us, the deep, nourishing stream.

The “river below the river” supports us, feeds us, quenches our thirst, carries the seeds of new life. It is full and deep and fertile. It is inside of us. It is “the natural gradient of the psyche” of which Jung speaks—this watercourse, this natural unfolding of the flow of our lives.

A balanced water element allows fluidity and flow, an ability to rest and nourish oneself and others, to guide perception and reflection and have a ready expression of feelings such as love.”–Staying Health With the Seasons, Elson M. Haas

There are rivers in us. Rivers move through us: rivers of tears, rivers of blood, rivers of qi—the life essence—rivers of breath, of dreams, of memories.

Rio abajo rio, the river below the river. We need to go down to where the water is flowing, let go of all the outer concerns and activities and go down to the banks of the river of our own lives. The river will carry us toward our own destiny. The river will find the way. We don’t have to figure it out. Our work is to be open and fluid like water, to receive like the river, to follow the path of least resistance, to flow around obstacles, to keep going.

“ … form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”  –Wendell Berry

Even as the river moves through us the water takes its shape from our own inner contours. The water carries all of our life—our sorrow, pain, longing, the song of our joy, the seeds of our springtime to come.

The water washes us anew; it bathes our hearts like the soft rain bathes our faces. The river connects the heights of the mountain with the waters of the sea. It is a link in time between the ancient past and the unknown future.

We surrender to the dark waters of this time of year—this ending time that is also the beginning. We let go. We consent to the mystery that is moving through our lives and that moves us. The river will carry us through this winter in our lives.

“O Seekers, remember: all distances are traversed by those who yearn to be near the source of their being.” –Kabir

Happy Solstice, everyone. Happy New Year. The water will carry us toward the light.



September. Glory days here in the Pacific Northwest. We’re having the summer that we didn’t have all summer! Such stunning days of sun, warmth, and blue skies.

As noted last time, in Chinese Five-Element theory this season of late summer is related to the Spleen system. In the last post I talked about some of the physical manifestations of the Spleen system. Here, I’d like to attempt to describe the psycho-emotional aspects of this phase of the Five-Element cycle.

The Chinese word Yi, or intention, represents the spirit of the Spleen system. It is the Yi that supports our ability to develop ideas and have sustained intention, purpose, clarity of thought, altruism, and compassion. The Chinese symbol for Yi is made up of two sections—the top section means “sound” and the bottom section means “heart-mind-knowledge.” Intention is the sound of the mind.

Just as the Spleen system is responsible for extracting nourishment for our physical bodies from what we eat, the Yi, or spirit level of this organ system, is associated with our being able to feel nourished on an emotional level.

The function of digesting food is only the most basic level of the Spleen system’s work, which also includes the ability to process situations with the intellect, and emotionally.

When the Yi (Spleen) spirit is healthy we are able to think clearly, concentrate, study, focus, memorize, reflect, and generate ideas. We can “digest” experiences and impressions and transform them into ideas, values, and actions. The Yi is also what allows us to have sympathy for others … and for ourselves! We are able to recognize our own heart’s purpose, have ideas about how to achieve that purpose, set that intention, and apply ourselves to that end.

When the Yi spirit is “disturbed” or out of balance, there can be obsessive thoughts, worry, brooding, ruminating, and “being up in one’s head” a lot. Thought patterns can go around and around without resulting in movement, commitment, or action but simply cause distress or insomnia or feelings of unease. There can be muddled thinking, internal chatter, and an inability to stay on track with ideas to the point of completion.

With a Yi disharmony, opportunities can feel like a burden of such endless possibilities that it’s hard to transform them into a productive reality or to take action. Such a disharmony can make one seem to be always dithering, never settling on a course of action … or, conversely, stuck, weighted with worry, and too mired to move forward.

Someone with a Yi disharmony can be over-nurturing of others to avoid facing his or her own issues, growth, or responsibilities. Empathy and compassion are healthy manifestations of the Yi spirit, but an out-of-balance state can result in codependency, a coping strategy of attention focused on others, caretaking others at the expense of taking care of one’s self, over-involvement in other people’s stories … or, on the flip side of that, neediness, clinging, self-absorption, too much focus on one’s own issues, and craving sympathy.

The possible causes of a Spleen/Yi disharmony are varied:

  • constitutional issues that began in utero or from genetic makeup
  • excess worry (which can begin in childhood)
  • unhealthy diet
  • digestive disorders causing malabsorption
  • anemia and vitamin deficiencies
  • excess sugar (which weakens the Spleen system over time)
  • childhood or later exposure to family dysfunction and/or alcoholism
  • long-term stress, strain, and/or exhaustion
  • non-ideal eating habits such as eating late at night, eating while on the go, or eating while doing something else

We can all probably recognize at least a few of the above symptoms or causes. It’s impossible to live a completely pure and stress-free existence or to stop worrying when all around us there is the suffering of others, or our own problems to confront. So … what can we do? How can we heal the Yi spirit? How do we hold to our intention?

  • Imagine the world as a rich, fertile ground for your ideas and actions, resulting in a bountiful harvest
  • stand your ground and feel solid in your intention
  • take on less and stay with things you start
  • get quiet and listen to your inner voice
  • allow yourself to say what you think and express yourself fully and clearly
  • stay centered and grounded in the face of others’ problems, needs, opinions, or demands
  • when faced with obstacles find ways to solve the problem and move forward, like a river flowing around a rock, rather than continuing in a futile, unproductive manner
  • give yourself the same loving advice you’d give a friend who is worrying excessively

In the creative cycle, the Spleen/Earth/Yi phase is the first step in getting something accomplished, whether it’s envisioning painting a beautiful picture, thinking about learning to play an instrument, deciding to take a trip, setting the intention to get in shape, wanting to learn a new language, and so on. The Spleen/Earth/Yi phase is the light bulb going off in our heads—Idea! Intention!

The next phase is the Lung/Metal/Po phase, during which we breathe life, energy and enthusiasm into the idea/intention.

After that is the Kidney/Water/Zhi phase, which brings forth the will to act and achieve and the persistence to see it through, to move the idea forward.

The fourth stage of the cycle is the Liver/Wood/Hun phase, which paces the idea and gets it in the right place at the right time to foster its existence and eventual success.

And the final, fifth stage is the Heart/Fire/Shen phase, which brings expression to the idea, makes the idea a reality, and brings it out into the world.

In future posts I’ll talk about these other phases and about how an imbalance in any of the stages can stumble us up with our goals and ability to fulfill our dreams. But for now, think: “nourishment.” Not only nourishment from all the lovely vegetables and fruits in this harvest season, but nourishment of the Self, the spirit, the soul.

Earth’s sweet gifts

Here we are at the tail end of August, entering the Earth phase of the Chinese Five Element cycle, beginning around the third or fourth week of this month until shortly after the autumn equinox.

It’s that still point between the busyness of Summer/Fire, which is outward, active Yang energy, and the coming Autum/Metal, which is cooler, inward Yin energy. Late Summer/Earth season serves as a bridge and a place of balance, a short “extra” season that rests at the center of nature’s cycles.

Late summer is all about nourishment, both physical and emotional, but it’s also a time of transition when many changes occur both in nature and within ourselves. We may find ourselves feeling fatigued at this time, which can be the result of continuing the over-exertion of Summer/Fire activities when our bodies may want to simply rest. This is a time of starting to slow down, a time to enjoy Earth’s abundant offerings of vegetables and fruits. This is a season to relax, eat fresh food, and enjoy family and friends.

In Chinese medicine the Earth phase is associated with the Stomach, Spleen/Pancreas, muscles, and the mouth. The organ systems of the Stomach and Spleen together build and maintain the whole body by preparing food for absorption, digesting food, and feeding muscles and blood with nutrients. The Spleen system stores blood, forms antibodies, and produces white blood cells to fight off harmful invaders. It is responsible for absorbing, transforming, and transporting food, water, and Qi (energy).

When the Spleen-Stomach system is healthy and balanced, we feel nourished, stable, secure, grounded, and clear-headed. We are able to fully enjoy the sweetness of life, connectedness with others, and a sense of being “home.” Digestion and elimination run smoothly, we feel energetic, and sleep is deep and restful.

The Spleen is also said to house thought processes, and if there is worry and over-thinking, this system can suffer. If we don’t nourish ourselves well with whole foods, this system will falter. When the Spleen-Stomach system is imbalanced, we find life to be not so sweet, and this often leads us to substitute large amounts of sugar and processed carbs to compensate for what we are not getting in the way of real nourishment, either physical or emotional, or both.

A Spleen-Stomach system imbalance can manifest physically as fatigue/exhaustion, loose stools, constipation, pain or swelling in the stomach or abdomen, heartburn, uncomfortable feelings after eating, edema in the ankles or legs, poor lymphatic drainage, fatty tumors, weight gain, excessive appetite or loss of appetite, stiffness in the arms and shoulders, easy bruising, excess menstrual flow, spotting between periods, sluggishness, gingivitis, bleeding gums, and tooth decay. Western medical disorders associated with a Chinese medical diagnosis of a Spleen-Stomach pattern could include gastritis, duodenal ulcers, enteritis, chronic diarrhea, bleeding disorders, anemia, chronic hepatitis, diabetes mellitus, and cholecystitis.

Emotionally, a Spleen-Stomach disharmony can show up as worry, insomnia, ruminating, obsessive thinking, mental agitation, lack of concentration, memory loss, brooding, neediness, depression, being “up in the head” a lot, having looping thoughts. We may find ourselves feeling isolated and disconnected from others.

This is a time of year to make sure to get enough rest, exercise, stress reduction, great nutrition, and time with friends and other loved ones in order to boost Earth energy. Now is when we harvest and store foods to nourish ourselves through the winter ahead, and emotionally and spiritually it’s a time to contemplate, reflect, and consolidate memories and experiences that will feed our spirits in the months to come.

Paul Pitchford, in Healing With Whole Foods, says that “to attune with late summer, one may listen to its subtle currents, as if living at the instant where the pendulum reverses its swing. Find the rhythms and cycles that make life simple and harmonious.”

Pitchford advises choosing foods for each meal that represent the center, the Earth—that is, mildly (and naturally) sweet foods, yellow or golden foods, round foods, and/or foods that are known to support the Spleen-Stomach system. Fortunately, we have an abundance of many of these foods being harvested now on the small farms in this area—we can load up! Here are some of those Spleen-Stomach nourishing foods:

Corn, carrots, cabbage, squash, potatoes, string beans, yams, sweet potatoes, peas, apricots, cantaloupes, yellow peppers, pumpkins, pears, apples, onions, garlic, watermelons, tomatoes, turnips, fennel, horseradish, rice, adzuki beans, garbanzo beans, parsley, and millet.

In this transition season of late summer, when plants and fruit trees and berry bushes are offering up so much lush, yummy nourishment for our bodies and the weather continues to be simply glorious and encourages relaxing outside with food and fellowship, I want to thank the Earth, our Mother, our center, for her many gifts to us.

Ode to a peach

ALERT: This post is not much about acupuncture or Chinese medicine. So sue me.

I probably should be extolling the virtues of the cherries and berries so abundant in Whatcom County—and I do love them!—but I’ve been having peaches from eastern Washington and ohhh, wow. Talk about a burst of luscious summer flavor on the tongue. Talk about memories flooding back with that taste: childhood summers at my grandparents’ cottage on the shore of Lake Erie where there was often a bowl of sliced peaches on the breakfast table, and young motherhood in southern Pennsylvania when my kids and I made Peach Quicky from the Alice’s Restaurant Cookbook.

Peaches are so very fine all on their own, eaten fuzz and all or peeled and sliced and slurped up straight and unadorned from a bowl. And yes, they are more nutritious when eaten fresh and not cooked. But Peach Quicky … now that is heaven. There is nothing quite like hot, spiced fruit on top of something cold and creamy. The simplicity of this dessert made it a family favorite and a go-to recipe when company came.

Remember Alice’s Restaurant? Arlo Guthrie’s song, the movie, the cookbook? I still have the original cookbook, published in 1969, the year one of my sons was born. Alice Brock inspired me as a budding cook to experiment, play, improvise, and get over my notion that I had to follow a recipe precisely. Her cookbook was more about having fun in the kitchen than producing the perfect dish. Today some of the recipes might give one pause in light of warnings about liberal use of butter or sugar and in this day of fresh as opposed to canned or frozen, but her basic message stands the test of time: play around with food, try new things, make it up as you go along.

Her directions for Peach Quicky: “Take a can or two of peaches, drain them, and put them into a buttered baking dish, cut-side up. Sprinkle them with brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, and some old cookie crumbs or graham cracker crumbs. Drizzle ’em with honey or maple syrup, dot ’em with butter, and put them in a hot oven or under the broiler till they are all bubbly. You can top them with ice cream or good old whipped cream. Serves 2 to 4.”

I’ll admit it here and now: all those years ago I used to buy canned peaches to make this recipe, and I still would if I got a hankering for it in the middle of winter! But having an organic farmer daughter has made me much more conscious about trying to eat in season and buying food grown locally.

These days would I alter Alice’s recipe depending on who was coming for dinner with various food allergies: Slice fresh peaches and put in a buttered (or oiled) baking dish, drizzle with honey and/or maple syrup, sprinkle some cinnamon and nutmeg on, dot with butter or coconut oil (solid at room temperature), bake in a hot oven (about 400 degrees) for 8 or 10 minutes until bubbly, and at the very end crumble toasted gluten-free ginger snaps over the top. Then spoon the hot fruit over regular vanilla ice cream or creamy Greek yogurt or dairy-free Coconut Bliss ice cream.

Mm-MMMM! I would add berries too, since this is berry country and because the berries make the dessert all the more colorful and delicious. The hot fruit begins to melt whatever’s underneath, and the last drops in the bowl are a yummy blend of creamy and fruity.

Why, I might even heat up some rum in a saucepan, pour it over the Quicky, and set it alight as a flambe upon serving, which I’ve never done before … but I think Alice would approve.

Bellingham’s fabulous farmers’ market has a couple of vendors from eastern Washington who sell fresh peaches, nectarines, and other fruit—Tiny’s Organic from Wenatchee and Martin Family Orchard from Orondo—and I like supporting their work of getting such tender, perishable fruit over the mountains to us here. The Co-op and Terra Organica have organic peaches also. If I was more religious about eating strictly local I would stick doggedly with the cherries, berries, apples, and pears grown right here in Whatcom County, but I just can’t give up the chance to have a fresh peach in season. No way.

Okay, as a health care practitioner I feel it’s my duty to tell you that peaches moisten the lungs and intestines and help with a dry cough, aid in reducing high blood pressure, and are good sources of lycopene and lutein, which are phytochemicals that are beneficial in the prevention of heart disease, macular degeneration, and cancer. They’re rich in iron, beta carotene, and potassium and help ensure proper functioning of cells, the balance of fluid and electrolytes, and nerve signaling.

But really, do you need to be convinced to eat a peach?

Finding a way back

Here’s one more about the Heart.

This sweet, short poem by Derek Walcott is about coming back to yourself after a love is lost, after love has ended, but I think it can also be about “giving back your heart to itself” when you’ve strayed from honoring your own feelings, dreams, or goals, or you’ve given away too much of yourself to work or others’ demands, or you’ve simply forgotten to take good care of yourself.


The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

Opening the heart

Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun, writes about our bodhichitta, which is a Sanskrit word meaning “noble or awakened heart.” Chodron describes bodhichitta as our “soft spot,” the ability in all of us to feel kinship with the suffering of others and not simply view it from a distance.

She writes, “It is said that in difficult times, it is only bodhichitta that heals. When inspiration has become hidden, when we feel ready to give up, this is a time when healing can be found in the tenderness of pain itself. In the midst of loneliness, in the midst of fear, in the middle of feeling misunderstood and rejected is the heartbeat of all things, the genuine heart of sadness.”

There is much sadness in the world. We read with horror of the killings in Norway, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, this country’s two wars, disease, famine, drought, heat-related deaths … it’s easy to feel overwhelmed these days with so much painful, distressing information coming in and a growing sense of helplessness about the possibility of positive change. It’s easy to want to look away, to protect ourselves, to think only nice thoughts.

After hearing about the shootings in Norway I picked up Chodron’s book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. I wanted to find some calming words that might help me let go of the anger and sorrow and allow me to move past a sense of numbness about more sad news.

Chodron says that “in order to feel compassion for other people, we have to feel compassion for ourselves.” The means to do this is through tonglen practice, a method for connecting with suffering—our own and that which is everywhere—by breathing in with the wish to take away someone’s pain, fear, or suffering, and breathing out with the wish to send healing, happiness, or joy.

Tonglen can be done for those who are ill, those who are dying or have died, those who are in pain of any kind. It can be done as a formal meditation practice or right on the spot at any time,” Chodron says.

There are variations on the actual words of tonglen practice but according to Buddhist teachings it’s important to begin with ourselves because until we can love and take of ourselves it is so much harder to be of much help to others. My friend Nancy reminded me of one simple method, which is to say first to ourselves:

  • May I be well.
  • May I be happy.
  • May my heart be peaceful and at ease.
  • May I be filled with loving kindness.

Then we meditate about others and say the words—first to someone we like, then to someone we feel neutral about, then someone we love, and finally to someone we hate or whose existence makes us suffer.

By doing this last, Chodron says, we can “make the taking in and sending out bigger.” She says, “If you are doing tonglen for all those who are feeling the anger or fear or whatever that you [yourself] are trapped in, maybe that’s big enough. But you could go further in all these cases. You could do tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies—those who hurt you or hurt others. Breathe in their pain and send them relief.”

She acknowledges that this last part can be very hard to do, almost impossible, that it goes against the grain of our human responses of fear, anger, terror, revulsion, misery, or wanting to get revenge. But she says “the practice dissolves the walls we’ve built around our hearts,” and in the process, “we begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.”

We breathe in whatever the suffering is and breathe out—radiate out—relief and healing in whatever form we visualize.

  • May you be well.
  • May you be happy.
  • May your heart be peaceful and at ease.
  • May you be filled with loving kindness.

Summer is the season of the Heart in Chinese medicine, a time to open and expand Heart energy and welcome in peace—and feel more compassion for ourselves, for those in our immediate sphere, and for our fellow humans around the world.

Scents and sensibility

Once upon a time when I lived in Maryland I used to see a talented massage therapist who incorporated many modalities into her work, including aromatherapy using essential oils. Her treatment room smelled incredible—she had little brown and dark blue bottles lined up on a pretty dresser and the smell of the oils was magic—and as soon as I walked in I felt myself calming down.

Each time I had a session with her she asked me questions and then made up a blend of specific essential oils based on what was going on for me that day. Some days after work I was exhausted and needed boosting and reviving. Other days I was wired, frazzled, and stressed and needed to calm down. And other sessions also addressed specific symptoms: headache, PMS, jaw pain, digestive distress.

Using a carrier oil she added two drops of one essence and four drops of another and three of some other, shook it gently, and then started the session, telling me what flowers, plants, or herbs she had used and why—for my particular situation that day—and encouraging me to go into a deeply meditative state as she laid hands on. Each time I felt like an Egyptian queen being anointed in a special ceremony. I saw her as a wizard or an alchemist working with my absolutely individual being, like no other, and different each session. She was listening to me in my entirety, not looking at just one or two symptoms to fix.

That’s what I love about Chinese medicine as well: looking at the whole, with everything connected to all else.

In my acupuncture practice I’ve been using some essential oil “synergies” based on the work of Dennis Willmont and his book Aromatherapy with Chinese Medicine: Healing the Body, Mind, and Spirit with Essential Oils. He has been practicing acupuncture, herbal medicine, shiatsu, tai chi, and Daoist meditation for 30 years and is an author, teacher, and lecturer in the field.

I’m careful about the use of scents because I have some patients with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity who are reactive to smells of any kind, but the Therapeutic Grade essential oils used in Willmont’s synergies are vastly different from the more generally available Cosmetic Grade oils found at most health food stores, which are often adulterated with chemical additives such as SD40 alcohol, propylene glycol (carcinogenic), diethylphalate (DEP), and synthetic linalyl acetate. The plants Willmont uses as either individual essential oils or in his blends (synergies) are grown organically or harvested wild and processed on site and with little heat and pressure so their valuable properties are not destroyed.

When indicated and with a person’s agreement, I apply small amounts of a particular synergy along the course of an acupuncture meridian or at specific points, in addition to the needles. Based on Willmont’s writings on the subject and on my own observations in my practice, I’m finding that a treatment can become a deeper, richer experience for some through the use of essential oils in conjunction with acupuncture. My patients have reported better sleep, vivid or lucid dreaming, release of long-held emotional issues, feelings of calmness and clarity, visions of colors during treatments, renewed energy for creative endeavors, and a sense of lightness, as if a burden has been lifted.

Willmont writes that we are drawn to aromatherapy because we are “naturally seeking relief from the heavy pollution bombarding us. There is pollution of the air, water, soil, sunshine (by ozone), and even of the earth’s resonant field (by electromagnetic radiation).” He cites research finding that pure essential oils offer protection against bacteria and viruses, help neutralize the effects of environmental toxins and radiation, and help facilitate the release of emotional trauma.

He writes: “Fragrances touch us directly through scent, the oldest and most evocative of our senses. Scent goes deeper than conscious thought or organized memory. Each individual oil has a personality with its own chemotypes and biological frequency. As we inhale an oil, its aroma goes up our olfactory nerve as electrical frequency impulses into our mid-brain’s amygdala, which stores and and releases emotional trauma, and then into the limbic system where our deepest emotions reside.”

When inhaled, essential oils affect the central nervous system directly, triggering brain circuits like turning on an electrical switch. “Complex interactions between the limbic system’s structures and other parts of the brain indicate that this ancient brain actually controls all of our basic neuro-vegetative functions: heartbeat, respiration, hormonal balance, and digestive function as well as emotions, hunger, thirst, ability to sleep, mood, sexual response, and immune response.”

In a study conducted by the University Clinic of Neurology at the Medical University of Vienna and published in the medical journal Physiology & Behavior, ambient aromas of lavender and orange improved patients’ mood and reduced anxiety in the dentist’s office. Two hundred participants from ages 18 to 77 were assigned to a waiting room before their dental appointment. Each of the four rooms featured a different stimulus of lavender, orange, music, and a control group. Their findings show those exposed to the ambient aromas had less anxiety and a better mood than the control group.

In 2009 Brown University conducted a review of current research in the field of aromatherapy and reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience: “A systematic review of scientific experimentation addressing olfactory effects on mood, physiology, and behavior was undertaken. From this review, 18 studies meeting stringent empirical criteria were then analyzed in detail and it was found that credible evidence that odors can affect mood, physiology and behavior exists.”

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, “Several clinical studies suggest that when essential oils (particularly rose, lavender, and frankincense) were used by qualified midwives, pregnant women felt less anxiety and fear, had a stronger sense of well-being, and had less need for pain medications during delivery. Many women also report that peppermint oil relieves nausea and vomiting during labor.”

Despite positive research, the field of aromatherapy has its detractors; the subject is controversial. I choose to follow my instinct in this, and my own personal experience.

Some of the essential oil synergies I am using are for pain conditions and others are aimed more at stress reduction and easing emotional issues. These blends devised by Dennis Willmont are grounded in ancient traditions of Chinese medicine and are informed by his years of study in this field.

One synergy, called “Overcome,” addresses both the Kidney and Liver energetic systems and uses a combination of Yin and Yang essential oils to help contact a person’s inner potential and successfully lead it out into the world in a balanced way. In Chinese medicine this process is called “Fulfilling Destiny.”

Another synergy I use, called “Balance,” calms and clears the Heart; frees, calms, and arouses the spirit; guides instinct, intention, and perspective; creates a strong movement of Qi that allows a person to more comfortably face emotional conflicts and release them; and helps create harmony within and without to overcome negative emotions.

Sounds great, huh? Wouldn’t we all like to fulfill our destiny? Face emotional conflicts and release them? Overcome negative emotions? Balance Kidney, Liver, Heart, Lung, and all other systems? We are all trying to stay healthy. Aromatherapy, acupuncture, massage—none of these are magic bullets for what ails us, but they are tools to aid us. When we take in such work and combine it with our own at-home efforts to stay sane, healthy, and whole, we are tapping in to our body’s healing intelligence.

Summer, finally

It’s summer at long last, which some of us in the Pacific Northwest thought would never come during our long, slow spring, with weeks and weeks of record-breaking cool temperatures, rain, and heavy overcast. According to meteorologist Cliff Mass, the spring of 2011 saw “the coldest March through May at SeaTac since dependable records are available (1956).” July 4th weekend seemed to kick it off, finally!

So … as the season goes on, when temperatures start climbing above 75 or 80, let’s remember how much we longed for heat and sun, for the fire of summer …

In Chinese medicine Summer is considered to be the Fire Phase of the Five Phases, associated with the Heart and Small Intestine systems in the body.

The Heart system controls the blood vessels, is associated with the tongue, stores the spirit, and is considered the emperor of the the body, mind, and spirit, enabling laughter, joy, conscious awareness, meaningful connections to both the inner and outer worlds, and happiness through appropriate levels of intimacy with others. The Small Intestine system serves the Heart by discriminating between the necessary and unnecessary, the true and the false.

When there is too-strong Heart Fire, a person is unable to quiet the mind or emotions and often has ungrounded ideas, expressions, or actions that do not bring fulfillment. When someone’s Heart Fire is too weak, there can be unsatisfying connections with others or with work or activities.

An imbalance in the Heart/Small Intestine systems can manifest in the following symptoms:

  • heart palpitations, heart pain
  • chest oppression, arrhythmia, shortness of breath
  • forgetfulness, absent-mindedness
  • insomnia
  • anxiety, nervousness
  • inappropriate laughter
  • difficulty speaking, stammering
  • night sweats, spontaneous sweating
  • dry throat, thirst, dark or bloody urine

Summer is a yang season of outward activity, longer days, brightness, expansion, social relatedness, growth, and creativity. The classic texts recommend rising early in the morning, welcoming the life-giving nourishment of the sun, and embodying joy, the principle emotion associated with Heart spirit. We find joy by gaining acceptance of life as it is without inner resistance, by letting go of fear, restlessness, desire, pride, jealousy, self-pity, doubt, and anger, and by not lamenting our mistakes.


We know in Western medicine that emotions affect the actual functioning of the heart, causing a change in pulse rate, flushing of the face, nervousness, light-headedness, and other symptoms.

The Asian view of the heart system includes not only the organ itself but also the heart as a mental-emotional center. The Chinese word for heart is xin, which is often translated as “heart-mind.” Thus in Chinese medicine the heart not only regulates blood circulation but also governs sleep, memory, spirit, consciousness, and the mind in general.

When the Heart/Small Intestine systems are in balance, there is clarity, good humor, a vision for solutions, humility, a sense of wonder and curiosity about others and the world, and a natural ability to feel and express joy.

When the Heart Shen (Spirit) is not in harmony, there can be a scattered and confused mind, depression, memory loss, insomnia, mental illness, hyperactivity, extremes of laughter (excess or none), excessive daydreaming, irrational behavior, and/or lethargy.


In Western terms, the small intestine is where most of our digestion occurs, primarily through enzymes secreted by the pancreas. The small intestine is about 19 feet long! Lots going on there! Proteins, lipids (fats), and carbohydrates are the three major classes of nutrients that are sorted and processed by the small intestine.

The inner wall of the small intestine has microscopic finger-like projections called villi (Latin for “shaggy hair”). The inside of a healthy small intestine looks like a shag rug. All that surface area serves to absorb and transport substances via the blood vessels to different organs in the body, or to send waste matter to the large intestine to be eliminated. When the lining has been damaged, as in celiac disease, the shag rug looks more like a smooth linoleum floor—the villi get blunted and then flattened.

In metaphoric/emotional terms, the Small Intestine system helps us “digest the indigestible” or “stomach” something. When we’re faced with difficult situations, we have to “take it in,” absorb the meaning, process the feelings, sort out what applies and what can be let go of. What we don’t assimilate or eliminate remains stuck within and can cause us to have sluggish or frozen energy.

We are all being bombarded with words, images, and information that can feel like too much to process. We are sharing through social networks like Facebook and Twitter but often not getting back nourishment for the Heart spirit. As Paul Pitchford puts it in Healing With Whole Foods, “Energy from excessive thought and worry races through the head while the heart is impoverished.”

Pitchford recommends foods for calming and focusing the mind and supporting the Heart system. He advises a simple diet with occasional light fasting as a way to create deep, peaceful thinking, plus avoiding food habits that scatter the mind or overheat the body. “Too many ingredients in meals, very spicy or rich foods, refined sugar, alcohol, coffee, late-night eating, and large evening meals can cause insomnia as well as a profusion of mental chatter during the day.”

The following are some of Pitchford’s food recommendations for reducing anxiety, alleviating insomnia, and improving mental focus by quieting the spirit and helping it stay centered in the heart:

  • Brown rice and oats gently but profoundly calm the mind.
  • Nearly all mushrooms have cerebral effects. Reishi mushrooms are an immune tonic and directly nurture the heart, soothe the spirit, and calm the mind. The immune system is connected to the nervous system at the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.
  • Cucumber, celery, and lettuce contain silicon, which improves calcium metabolism and strengthens nerve and heart tissue.
  • Mulberries and lemons calm the mind.
  • Dill and basil can be used in both food and teas for their calming effect.
  • Chamomile, catnip, skullcap, and/or valerian are all helpful for anxiety or insomnia; taking rose hips with these herbs supplies Vitamin C for soothing the nerves.
  • Turkey, bananas, and milk all contain L-tryptophan, which is also taken widely as a supplement to calm the mind, promote sound sleep, and relieve depression.
  • Green foods are rich in magnesium, which allows calcium to function properly in the tissues of the heart and nerves; magnesium also restrains the “anxiety peptide,” a complex of amino acids in the brain that appears to contribute to anxiety. Green in general is considered to be a healing, grounding, harmonious color.
  • Jujube seeds (Ziziphus jujuba) are in a Chinese herbal formula, Suan Zao Ren Wan, widely used for calming the spirit and alleviating insomnia. Jujube seeds are considered to directly nourish the heart. I carry this formula in my practice.